Sneak peek: Auckland Zoo's new south-east Asia habitat, a year before opening day

Diggers and cranes are still working hard at Auckland Zoo's south-east Asia habitat, but a year from now it will be a jungle paradise in the heart of Auckland.

Construction on the $58 million dollar project began in 2018, but really the first step was when Auckland Zoo's trio of orangutans moved to Christchurch for two years in late 2017.

Almost two years later Melur, Wanita and Charlie are waiting at their South Island home, while a crane puts together their brand new playground. 

Once it opens, visitors to the zoo will see orangutans and Siamangs will climb on ropes suspended 23 metres in the air across a lake, while tigers will prowl above ground and the Sunda gharial crocodile hangs out in a specially built swamp.

It's all part of the zoo's master plan and overarching goal to get visitors and animals closer to each other.

Orangutans on large poles.
A boardwalk across the lake. Photo credit: Supplied/Auckland Zoo

"The way that we do that is by creating immersive landscapes," Auckland Zoo head of facilities services Monica Lake told Newshub.

"[They're] places where our visitors and our animals are able to be in an incredible plant-filled area in which the animals are happy and are themselves and are exhibiting all the kinds of natural behaviours that they exhibit in the wild."

Visitors will enter the habitat and first see the revamped orangutan enclosure, which has been filled with mature trees and canopy climbers for the apes to clamber around on.

A dome will be in the middle of the enclosure, which will mimic a swamp environment and house the Sunda gharial crocodile.

As visitors progress through the habitat they will pass by the otters and finally see the Sumatran tigers in a way they never will have before, from below.

"Tigers do not like to be in a low place, they like to be hidden. So we're planting dense bamboo forests for them to be in the shadows," Lake said.

"We're also creating ways and pathways where they can be over the visitor looking down on people rather than people looking down on them. I'm delighted to say that with this project we eliminated the pit, which the tigers had lived in for many years."

A drawing of tigers in a tunnel above humans.
Tigers above visitors. Photo credit: Supplied/Auckland Zoo

A new cafe will also be built at the zoo and will look over a lake in the middle of the enclosure.

Poles and ropes will be installed over the lake so orangutans can climb over them and above a boardwalk filled with visitors.

The cafe will have a lot of glass so views aren't obstructed, but it will be specially designed to prevent birds from flying into it.

The habitat is the end of a long road for the zoo, with initial planning for the enclosure spanning back 20 years.

"We've been working at this project for about five years. It took us more than two-and-a-half, almost three, years to begin the construction. The design started 20 years ago with our goal of creating a new place, a renewed environment for our orangutan," Lake said.

But there won't be many spots long-time visitors to the zoo will recognise, most of it has been demolished.

"Part of the goal will be that they don't recognize anything, but in fact, we kept a lot of the elements," Lake said.

"So we were able to keep some of the original retaining walls at that back that hold back some of the landscape, the fernery many kids had an early experience running through, that becomes part of the really mature landscape that in that is part of that whole high forest canopy."

It might not look like much now, but pretty soon the construction site in the centre of the zoo will be something quite special.